Churchill Downs: Let there be lights for Stephen Foster

Hoping to build off the success of its "Downs After Dark" night-racing cards, Churchill Downs announced Friday this year's running of the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap for 3-year-olds and up would be contested under the lights for the first time when it is held on June 16.

The 11⁄8-mile Stephen Foster — which also had its purse reduced from $500,000-added to $400,000-added — will be one of 10 Spring Meet stakes races outside of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks programs scheduled to be run on a Saturday night. All four night racing programs during the Spring Meet are scheduled on Saturdays and will, for the first time, all feature graded stakes races.

Since it first featured night racing in the summer of 2009, Churchill has seen sizable crowds turn out for their "Downs After Dark" programs. Last year's "Opening Night" kickoff of the Spring Meet on Saturday attracted 38,142 fans, the largest crowd in the short history of night racing beneath the Twin Spires and a record for a non-Derby/Oaks/Breeders' Cup program.

"We have chatted from the get-go about the possibility of a night like the Stephen Foster under the lights and this seemed to be the logical time to do it," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. "Although the purse of the Foster has dropped, we still think it's going to be a top-notch attraction. We're anxious to see what the spectacle of top-notch stakes competition adds to the great experience of night racing at Churchill."

Churchill Downs hosted the Breeders' Cup World Championships for the last two seasons and had those cards finish under the lights as well. Still, Asher played down the notion the Kentucky Derby will too soon turn into a night-time attraction.

"We said when we put up the first light we would never say never to a Kentucky Derby at night, but this is not a test case," Asher said. "This is trying to increase the value of night racing and to solidify what has been a very successful, very exciting product for us."

Stephen Foster night will also offer feature the return of the Grade II Fleur de Lis from a one-year hiatus as well as a pair of Grade III contests in $100,000-added Matt Winn and the $100,000-added Regret.

The Stephen Foster is part of Churchill's stakes schedule for its Spring Meet that runs from April 28-July 1. The meet is spearheaded as always by the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks on May 5 and May 4, respectively, and will feature 24 events with total stakes purses of $7.275 million.

The value of stakes purses for the 2012 Spring Meet is down slightly from last year's total of $7.325 million for 25 races. Among those races whose purses were adjusted downward include a $50,000 decrease for the $150,000-added Fleur de Lis Handicap and the Grade II Firecracker Handicap on July 1 which has been reduced by $25,000 to $150,000-added.

"The schedule continues to offer strong events ... but the lack of growth in those purses continues to reflect the challenges Churchill Downs and Kentucky's horse industry face in the continued growth of direct gaming competition from neighboring and other racing markets that benefit from gaming revenues," said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack.